Lenny Tristano

"It would be useless for me to play something I don't feel. I wouldn't be doing anything. If I played something that I'd have to impose on myself, I wouldn't be playing anything good." (Lennie Tristano - 1950) 

"Everybody in this country is very neurotic now. They're afraid to experience an intense emotion, the kind of emotion, for instance, that's brought on by good jazz. There's more vitality in jazz than in any other art form today. Vitality arises from an emotion that is free." (Lennie Tristano - 1950) 

I just bought a 40 CD compilation in Germany called From Swing to Bebop, a great set of recordings from the late 1930's to the early 1950's that shows the beginnings of what became known as bebop as it evolved out of the swing era of the big bands. There are numerous recordings of Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Don Byas, Dexter Gordon, Teddy Wilson, Roy Eldridge and many other great big band swing players that were thrust into dealing with the new small group music created by Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. There are also some great recordings of early bop pioneers such as Howard McGhee, Fats Navarro, Tadd Dameron, Allen Eager, Charlie Rouse, Ernie Henry, George Shearing, Nat King Cole and many others. My favorite CD of the compilation is one that presents some of the unusual far out sounds that were taking place during the mid-forties by Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and pianist Lennie Tristano. The wildest and most disturbing to me are the 11 pieces by Lennie Tristano. Wild because Tristano's advanced use of chromaticism, counterpoint and bitonality as well as his absolutely awesome technique is otherworldly. Disturbing because I didn't realize that anyone was taking it so out in the jazz world of 1946 and 1947. I mean this is some really avant garde music. 

In the early 1940's Tristano was still in Chicago where he was studying at the American Conservatory of Music. After graduating in 1943 he started receiving critical attention as a teacher there and attracted such students as alto saxophonist Lee Konitz and composer/arranger Bill Russo. In 1946 Lennie moved to New York and flew onto the jazz scene as he began playing with the leading modern musicians of the day including Dizzy and Bird. In 1947 he was chosen as musician of the year by Metronome magazine and was championed by music critic Barry Ulanov. 

Soon after Tristano arrived in New York he put together his own trio using the piano, bass, guitar format made popular by Art Tatum. This working trio which included Billy Bauer on guitar and Arnold Fishkin on bass began attracting a lot of attention in New York working at clubs like the Three Deuces and Birdland. Listening to these recordings they made in the mid 1940's I'm struck first by how strong they sound. This is definitely not the cool school of jazz that somehow has been attributed to beginning with Tristano. Lennie himself plays very powerful and wild full of passion and energy. I'm also struck by the density of the music created by the trio's use of bitonal or tritonal counterpoint. The trio often improvises together like the early New Orleans ensembles but with a completely different sound created by the different keys they were each playing in as well as their heavy use of chromaticism. To me it sounds as if the trio is playing very free over the chord changes, sometimes completely ignoring them for a moment and then coming back to them. They also use very complex rhythms and unusual phrases in their improvisations, which gives the music a feeling of floating and spinning. The titles Tristano gave these pieces show the direction his musical experiments were going in: Freedom, Parallel, Abstraction, and Dissonance. Now realize this is 1946 and 7. Bird first arrived on 52nd Street in September of 1944 and Diz took Bird into the recording studio to record the first so-called bop recording in early 1945. Tristano is definitely playing bebop music on these recordings but with a twist. He added concepts he learned while studying so-called European classical music. Tristano highly respected the music of composers like Bach, Bartok and Hindemith. (In fact he sometimes loved to play Bach on his gigs). You can hear these influences here on these fantastic recordings. 

When Lennie Tristano died in 1978 none of his many amazing recordings were available. They were all out of print. Unbelievable! Thankfully there are many reissues around today and I'm sure with more to come. You can get all the 1946 trio recordings on The Complete Lennie Tristano on Keynote and the 1947 trio on the Rarest Trio/Quartet (1946-1947). I also recommend his recording Live in Toronto as well as Live at Birdland (1949). Atlantic has now made available his Complete Atlantic Recordings from the 50's (or you can buy many of them separately). And don't forget Intuition on Capital with the first recording of free jazz. There are also quite a few more available which I haven't heard yet but I'm sure are equally great. If you haven't checked out much Lennie Tristano yet, go get busy!